Writing An Adaptation Is Tougher Than You Might Think

Image via WikipediaI recently got my hands on a video game for the Nintendo DS entitled Hotel Dusk: Room 215, for an extremely competitive pre-owned price at the nearest GameStop. It describes itself as an interactive novel, even going as far as getting you to hold the console just like a book and write notes in your detective's notebook using the stylus and touchscreen. One of the most pleasing things about the experience for me was to discover that, perhaps for the first time ever, the tag "interactive fiction" seemed appropriate. Hotel Dusk is not so much a video game with an underlying story, but more a novel that just happens to be presented on a handheld console. It is by no means perfect, but all too often the storytelling in video games is sorely lacking and seems very far down the priority list for the software development companies. In many cases, story is incidental, which is probably why video game titles typically make some pretty lousy movies. In this case, though, the gameplay is secondary to a competent story, certainly one that could stand up with some of the paperbacks you might pick up in an airport bookstore at least. At some point halfway through the novel – yes, I'm not even going to pretend it's actually a video game – I did in fact realize that it would make a good, old-fashioned, dead-tree book, with of course a few tweaks here and there. There are plenty of plot devices that only work within the concept of a video game, and in a book would make no sense, but they would be relatively small cosmetic changes to suit the medium. I began to wonder whether perhaps that had been done by CING, the Japanese development company who produced Hotel Dusk and a couple of other similar titles. Sadly, CING filed for bankruptcy a few months ago, and so it's quite unclear exactly what the status is of their intellectual properties. (If anyone out there does know if there is a written version, I'd appreciate finding out about it). In theory, the story must have already been written during the design phases for the Nintendo version. Would it be difficult to flesh it out into a novel? This month, while it seems everyone else with writing aspirations has taken leave of their senses and given NaNoWriMo a go, I've been investigating writing at my own pace; looking into suitable tools and software, experimenting with a few exercises, and trying out a few sites. I've been participating in sprints, trying to get as many words down on paper, and even tried a bit of flash fiction, a six minute story or two. Today it occurred to me that the prologue to Hotel Dusk is a video cutscene that takes perhaps about six minutes to run through, and I began to wonder again about a paperback adaptation. In brief, here's what happens in that first six minutes. Firstly we see the skyline of New York on December 24, 1976. A phone rings in the police department and Detective Kyle Hyde answers it, surprised to hear from someone called 'Bradley'. Next, we see Hyde on the docks, pointing a gun at a character whose back is turned to us. Hyde fires, and Bradley falls into the river, yelling the name "Mila" as he falls. Hyde wakes up from his flashback. It is now apparently three years later. Next, we see a shot of early morning in Los Angeles. An authoritative gentleman named Ed answers the phone and takes an order. he asks his secretary Rachel to get a hold of Hyde; we see Hyde get a beep on his pager and throw it down in the car seat next to him. A slide tells us it's now 4pm in Nevada, where Hyde pulls into a gas station, returns the call using a payphone, and gets some grief from his boss before being told he has a job, to pick up a package and an order sheet at a place called Hotel Dusk. Hyde gets back on the road, passing a young girl in a white dress walking along the roadside. Once he arrives at the hotel, Hyde gives us some exposition as how he quit the New York Police Department and moved out west, and is a door-to-door salesman for an outfit called Red Crown, but occasionally his boss gives him some quiet jobs on the side, while he looks for his missing partner, who apparently he believes isn't dead after all. The hotel door lies in front of him, and a click starts the game (or novel) for real. There it is, the first six minutes of the title. One thing should be clear; what appears above is not what you would want to read in a book. This would by no means be sufficient for a written treatment. I could have gone into more detail, explained every shot, every camera angle, and every detail that appeared on the screen, but it still would not constitute written storytelling. The fact is, even though something like Hotel Dusk tells a story, it does so with other mechanisms than just words. Furthermore, even if you try to substitute the images, the sound effects, or the music with words, what you have is not a particularly palatable story. (What you have is a description of a video game). At this point, I am desperately trying to avoid using the horrible word "multimedia" – media is, after all, already plural – but there are several key areas where the storytelling medium makes an enormous difference. We should not be surprised. We might expect a good movie to be two hours long, but the book that it was based on might take ten hours to read in actual reading time, perhaps spread over a few weeks' bedtime reading. A good video game may occupy us for as much as forty hours (personally, if a video game doesn't absorb me for as much as that, I feel somewhat cheated by the purchase, and if it goes on for much longer, I simply don't feel like it's worth the effort). Adapting one of these forms to another is not a simple job. This is why screenwriters have to work so hard adapting books into movies. The changes (or omissions) that were made  in the Lord Of The Rings movies, for instance, were not done lightly, but reflected tradeoffs between what the different media allow. It's also typically why adaptations to and from video games are always a bit fraught, simply because there is very seldom as much effort gone into the adaptation. Rather cynically, slapping the movie artwork onto the game cover will typically sell the game, no matter what its quality. Even when there's already a good story to work with, as with Hotel Dusk, writing a book version would be non-trivial. Let's consider what we would need to do to that "just the facts" description to turn it into a suitable book prologue. That skyline shot of New York needs to somehow be conveyed into words. We have to paint that picture, verbally only. We need to describe the sights, the sounds, the smells; what the weather is like on that day. Do we have to be accurate here? Will some know-it-all go and look up what the weather actually was that Christmas Eve? There are obvious ways we could communicate it was Christmas; perhaps we need to add a Santa character in the street. We similarly have to do the same with the police department, somehow transition our focus to the individual building, get us inside, describe Kyle Hyde, his desk, his co-workers, his surroundings, whether he smokes, a few touches here and there to convince us it is 1976. We have to explain the tone of Hyde's voice; we have to decide what our point-of-view is for this scene. Are we narrating in Hyde's first-person perspective, or from a narrator's viewpoint? We have to be especially careful here; it is quite convenient for a video game to show cutscenes from a third person perspective but the actual user interaction is first person. In a book, it might not be particularly comfortable if we flip between the two. We have all the scene setup work to do again at the docks, another character to describe, events, emotions. This is a relatively short yet dramatic scene in the flashback, and presumably we'll be revisiting it several more times in the story to follow. Then again, somehow, we have to get us to Nevada, and indicate three years have passed, presumably draw attention to some changes in Hyde's character or looks, some other way to indicate the passage of time, then communicate the details about his employer in Los Angeles. Do we even explicitly write that scene in the book? Won't that be awkward, if we intend to write the exposition in first person? (Or will we have some sort of Blade Runner "director's cut" to handle this?). That's a lot of questions to answer for what ends up being a very tiny bit of the story – the 'trailer' for what is to come – and some of those decisions will radically impact the rest of the book were you to actually go ahead and do so. It's all too tempting for a writer to believe that adapting existing material might be a shortcut. Indeed there may be some elements such as plot for which a pre-existing work may make significant contributions. However, the actual craft of writing still needs to be done; the description, the communication, the physical effort of getting the words down, but above all doing so in such a way that entertains and enthralls the reader. I am still intent on doing my prologue exercise at some time, but I am quite sure it will be considerably more effort than the six minutes it runs for. Related articlesNa. No. Wri. Mo. No. No. No. No! #nanowrimo (reinventingme.posterous.com) You looked over my shoulder #searchenginesunday (reinventingme.posterous.com) Book Review: A Spy At Home by Joseph Rinaldo (reinventingme.posterous.com) Is yWriter 5 The Novel Writing Tool For You? #nanowrimo (reinventingme.posterous.com) Review: How to Write a Blockbuster Novel With Storybook #nanowrimo (reinventingme.posterous.com) Zemanta helped me add links & pictures to this email. It can do it for you too.

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About darlingman1970

Born in the UK and a graduate in mathematics from Cambridge University, Chris Nash has followed a career in software engineering which he continued after moving the United States in 1996 and now brings him to California in 2010. However, Chris does not want to be considered as merely a code monkey, and has always been interested in writing; in areas as diverse as factual technical manuals all the way through to fiction. An avid reader, Chris is a fan particularly of mystery novels and enjoys above all the works of Agatha Christie and David Hewson. Chris has recently gone through some significant life changes which, at the moment, he is considering as the basis for a forthcoming novel and as food for thought on his blog. He manages to couple his loves of writing and technology and is particularly interested in how internet innovations have an impact on the writing and promotional process. Chris is a firm supporter of Creative Commons and other 'open' initiatives and believes strongly that such distribution mechanisms are the "right" way to handle intellectual property in an evolving digital world. Chris is a keen Nintendo DS and Wii player in his spare time, and is currently happily attached, living in the Central Coast area of California. Find him on Twitter as @darlingman1970. Don't ask him how old he is.
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